History

One of the final touches to the flat before flinging it open to the unsuspecting property-vultures was to replace the floor covering in the kitchen closet. This is what was underneath the old linoleum.

These are pages from a newspaper from September 1915, not long after this tenement was built. I don’t suppose whoever put them there intended to let them fester until they resembled a Kurt Schwitters collage, and if they did they left them too long to be able to claim to have invented Dada a year before Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara got together at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Given the date I was expecting details of a military campaign but instead the news is dominated by the recall of Konstantin Dumba, the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the United States, following accusations of espionage.

I was not familiar with this episode of the First World War and had to look it up. I couldn’t find any link between Dumba and Glasgow, but when I told someone the story at work, I was surprised to learn that before the war the Austro-Hungarian empire was represented here by the famous shipping magnate and art collector William Burrell who held the post of consul until 1906, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.

It seems unlikely the two ever met (Dumba was serving as Minister to Serbia at the time) and Burrell’s acquaintance with Central Europe may not have been extensive, if the recollections of an encounter in 1932 are to be believed. This was on the occasion of the first visit to Glasgow by Béla Bartók who was a guest of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (himself sometimes compared to Bartók as a modernist who drew extensively on the idioms of his country’s folk and traditional music).

Chisholm’s wife, Diana, recalled:

When we knew Bartók was coming to Glasgow to stay with us, the first thing, which worried us, was – language difficulty. None of us, of course, could speak one word of Hungarian. Would our famous guest be any better with English? I immediately bought an ‘English-cum-Hungarian’ dictionary, (by the time I left Scotland I had entertained so many continental composers, musicians, and singers, that I had a very comprehensive collection of ‘English-cums’). I pictured myself standing on the station platform anxiously scanning the face of every male, who, in my opinion, looked ‘foreign’, and gesticulating wildly with the dictionary. However, I was rescued (or thought I was) from this predicament by the Hungarian Consul in Glasgow, Sir William Burrell, who telephoned me the day before Bartók’s arrival to say that he also would like to come to the station to receive this distinguished visitor from Hungary.

‘Luck’, I thought, ‘this lets me out’. So you can imagine my disappointment, when, on meeting Sir William a few minutes before the train was due to arrive (8.35 p.m. on February 28 1932), he said he hoped that either my husband or I could speak Hungarian because he could not.

‘Well’, I said laughingly, ‘you’re the official representative so you can get on with it.’ But we need not have worried. When the Flying Scotsman arrived and the passengers alighted from the train it was quite simple to recognise him. There was only one Béla Bartók! A small white-haired man, wearing a black Homburg hat, thick black coat with a heavy Astrakhan collar and armed with a music case in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Who I wondered had forewarned him about Glasgow’ s weather?

Sir William went forward at once to greet him, and I swear I saw a look of relief flit across the consul’s face when Bartók said in a softly spoken, broken English accent, ‘Bartók is my name’. After that all went smoothly. Later in the day, my husband and I admitted to each other that we had both felt ashamed that not one of the party who came to receive him could reply to him in his language, least of all the Consul.1

Whether Sir William was still the Consul at that time I have been unable to confirm. I don’t know a word of Hungarian either, although I did find something else when I was clearing out the flat. I had not opened my copy of Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins in more than thirty years.

In a fit of insanity I disturbed my violin out of hibernation. The downstairs neighbours must have been grateful the episode was very brief.

Notes

  1. Erik Chisholm, ‘Béla Bartók: The Shy Genius’, available for download from the Erik Chisholm website.

Remembering the Freedom Riders

In 1961 Mother’s Day in the United States fell on May 14th. Two groups of civil rights campaigners were half way through the second week of their bus journeys south from Washington, designed to test a Supreme Court decision of the previous year that declared the segregation of inter-state transportation unconstitutional.

With the black and white passengers deliberately sitting together, and ignoring the signs that directed them to different facilities at rest stops, they expected to face suspicion and hostility, but apart from an ugly incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had not run into any serious trouble. But in Alabama, things suddenly turned nasty.

As it left Anniston, the Greyhound bus was pursued by a convoy of angry whites who, when it pulled over for a flat tyre, attacked the vehicle, set it ablaze, and assaulted passengers as they emerged from the smoke. The Trailways bus, carrying the second group, arrived later and, after on-board segregation was forcibly established, were allowed to continue to Birmingham, where many of the passengers were brutally set upon by members of a large crowd which was waiting for them.

Shaken and injured the campaigners were nevertheless determined to continue to Montgomery the next day. But when the Alabama authorities refused to guarantee their safety, the riders reluctantly agreed to complete their journey to New Orleans by plane. Thus ended the first Freedom Ride.

When I wrote a piece recently on two writers – John Lewis and Gary Younge – who had revisited the sites of some of the most momentous scenes of that first ride, in what I argued were politicized variants of the popular ‘footsteps’ genre of travel writing, I looked for an appropriate image to illustrate it, and found this:

Historic marker at 4th Avenue N and 19th St N, Birmingham, Alabama: photo by kschlot1

The marker was erected in 1995, close to the site of the old Trailways bus terminal (now occupied, somewhat inevitably, by a bank). The site of the bus burning in Anniston was memorialized in 2007, although both were privately funded: evidence perhaps of Alabama’s official reluctance to come to terms with parts of its past it would prefer to forget.

But what I didn’t immediately notice about the plaque is how inaccurate and misleading it is. That it refers to the Greyhound, rather than Trailways, terminal is perhaps of no great consequence, although it must surely puzzle those passers-by who know that the Greyhound terminal is several blocks north and must wonder why the marker is placed here and not there.

The use of the word ‘youth’, though, demands a little more attention. Not only is it simply misleading to imply that the riders were all young people – five of the fifteen riders who arrived in Birmingham that day were over 40 (indeed three of them were over 50) – it’s a very curious choice when applying it to a very specific group of individuals, for it is neither a plural nor a collective noun. It is as if in the struggle to find a wording that everyone would find acceptable, no one knew what to call them.

The ‘klansmen’ who attacked them have a certain familiarity, as do the ‘police’ who stood by and watched, and yet – perhaps to compensate for this reckless admission of official collusion – the riders themselves become a strangely disembodied, abstract entity, the personification of one of the stages of life. It makes it easier for us to feel the kind of sympathy that is born of condescension rather than solidarity; it marks them as immature, easily swayed by manipulative others (the acronym CORE – surely opaque to many who read the notice – serving perfectly in this respect).

Above all, it codes them as feminine in contrast to those hyper-masculine thugs who participated in their humiliation. Or it would, if it weren’t for that final clause that suddenly and unexpectedly has them ‘standing their ground’ – a phrase that has circulated with particular speed these last few weeks, but which for a century or more has conjured up the image of an armed white patriarch defending his private property against intruders. Here, in a brilliant twist, it is being used to honour non-violent protesters (black, white, male, female) seeking to assert their right to occupy public spaces together.

Evidently, there is more than one way to stand your ground.

Pop Videos of the Future

What if field recordings became popular?  You know, like pop songs?

In a piece on a field recording posted in tribute to Ahmed Basiony, killed in the Cairo uprisings in January this year, Marc Weidenbaum asks a similar question.  The recording, made by John Kannenberg, is one of a series of museum recordings, all lasting exactly 4 minutes 33 seconds – a duration in tribute, of course, to John Cage.

Weidenbaum continues:

It’s no doubt something of a pipe dream among those of us who enjoy field recordings, but should the act of recording the sound of a place ever become nearly as popular and common as is taking photographs of places, it’s imaginable that 4’33” would become a if not the standard length of such an audio document, the same way that there are standardized dimensions for photos.

This may be true. And indeed I have made some 4’33” recordings of libraries, other places of relative silence, that might appeal to our inner Cage.

But if 4’33” is one standard (equivalent perhaps to an album), then one minute is another (the seven-inch single of the field recording world, we might say).  Think of the Quiet American’s One-Minute Vacations or Sound and Music’s Minute of Listening project (to which I have offered some contributions). Sixty seconds is also the (approximate) length of the sonic postcards that are emerging from the City Rings venture.

Whatever. But if these became hits, one thing they would need is a video.  What would a field recording pop video look like?

Well one thing they wouldn’t look like are those videos on YouTube that document people making field recordings (usually to create sound effects) or offer tutorials in using field recording equpment.

More promising is a Vimeo group that goes by the name of, um, Field Recording.  John Kannenberg himself has a A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum here, which displays a floor plan and indicates where in the building the different recordings were made as they play.  South Bank Skate consist of a sequence of still images taken of a skate park, while the soundtrack appears to be a continuous recording of people skateboarding there.

There are some films of musical performances which, while they make full use of the acoustic space (and one, Notturno, recorded in a working steel foundry, is actually dominated by the ambient sound) still offend the purist in me, who doesn’t want to call these field recordings.

But probably the most common approach found here is to present long takes from a static camera, positioned close to where the recordings were made.  Among my favourites is this clip of Zurich airport at night by Made for Full Screen:

I like this sequence too, animate structures #4 by John  Grzinich, exploring the aeolian effects of strong winds on the landscape and the built environment in the hills just north of San Francisco:

Also interesting is Transplant – 06/07/2010 by Keir Docherty, a close-up of foliage, with the movement of motor traffic on a busy road beyond, which dominates the soundtrack, part of a ‘series of short videos which capture simple moments of everyday life from a very particular perspective.’  The point being to demonstrate that while trees and plants are often introduced to conceal roads from the eye, they are much more effective at masking the visual rather than the aural, even though they do dampen the sound.

These are all fairly close to what I imagine a field recording pop video would look like. The long takes, the static camera, the relative absence of movement within the frame, all help to draw attention to the soundtrack, and yet allow a certain tension between sound and image, given that there will always be a mismatch between what you hear and what you can see (like noises originating off-screen, but also events on-screen that, perhaps unpredictably, cannot be heard). And it is a tension that doesn’t tend to exist with photographs which do not carry the same (if any) sonic expectations.

The makers of such films have sometimes found it useful to work to a set of rules. Made for Full Screen drew up guidelines for a Vimeo group called The Pictures Don’t Move:

1. No camera movement (zoom, pan, …)
2. No editing (cut, time manipulation, …)
3. No performance (acting, dancing, …)
4. Original sound (no music, …)
5. At least 30sec long!

Two years later with over 400 videos, the principles have clearly struck a chord. Despite frequent flagrant (and sometimes spammy) disregard for these rules, there are some great films here.  But after watching a few, my growing feeling was that they were visually too busy.  Or at least that their creators were more interested in what you see rather than what you hear.  Perhaps at some level they were trying too hard not to be boring.

That’s never been a problem for me. Long fascinated by constrained writing, I have been experimenting with a set of rules of my own. Unaware of The Pictures Don’t Move until a few weeks ago, mine are similar, but in effect add more conditions, namely (1) the films must be exactly one minute long, and (2) the source of most of the sounds must be off-camera (to insist on all would be one step too far, I think).

  1. One minute because, as I suggested, it is becoming one of the standard formats for field recordings, but also because producing a series of works of this length (which could be joined together to make a longer film made up of identically-sized segments) help to sharpen your awareness of this – often merely rhetorical (‘just give me a minute’) – unit of time that we take for granted. I suppose my gamble is that this rule can help produce something that makes a minute seem much more precious and longer-lasting than we often allow.
  2. I think a key to this stretching of time is to encourage the viewers to listen as intently as they watch, and to point the camera away from the source of the sound is one of the best ways of doing this. And there is no better way of slowing you down than imposing a rule that breaks the ingrained habits of almost everyone who makes and watches videos.

One video in the Field Recordings group that obeys this acousmatic principle is Geijitsu Mura Koen by Brown (also an active member of The Pictures Don’t Move group).  It is grotesquely long – almost two minutes – but repays repeated … I was going to say listening, but what we need is a word that combines listening and viewing (with more of the former than the latter).  Listiewing perhaps.

My own efforts have been focused on a project that is bound by even more limitations: Scottish Minutes. The plan is to produce sixty one-minute videos in accordance with these rules, but with the additional objective of covering a wide variety of locations in Scotland (rural, urban, maritime, etc) at different times of year and times of day. In the last eighteen months I’ve made five.  It may take some time.

It almost goes without saying that these rules favour those with fairly unsophisticated equipment.  They could be made quite easily using a smartphone. I tend to make things more complicated for myself. Used to making sound recordings, I normally use binaural microphones with a minidisc recorder for the audio, and a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. Back home I transfer the recording onto computer, choose the segment I want and attach it to the matching segment of film (replacing the original audio taken by the camera).  Of course, since much of the sound is off camera, precise matching of sound and image is not usually required.

Here’s an example of a non-Scottish minute. A Short Film About Flying, made at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.  You will notice that not only are these videos done on the cheap, I don’t even bother to clean the camera lens properly.  How rock’n’roll is that?

Malcolm X as Photographer

One of the surprises for me reading Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm X is the number of references to him as a photographer.

In the summer of 1963, for instance, to a civil rights demonstration in New York, he ‘brought along a 35-millimeter camera and busied himself taking photographs. “If there were no captions for these pictures, you’d think this was Mississippi or Nazi Germany,” he informed one New York Times reporter’ (p253).

This is not the first mention of Malcolm filming demonstrations. It seems he made a habit of it, possibly because the mainstream media could not be relied on to report objectively, but also, perhaps, to help the Nation of Islam identity (or at least provoke) FBI observers and infiltrators.

On holiday in Miami with his wife, children, and Cassius Clay in January 1964, he kept a notebook in which

he drafted several paragraphs about his family’s visit to Clay’s training camp that were designed to be the basis for a feature news story, ‘Malcolm X, the Family Man.’ Most of his notes were captions designed to accompany photographs he had taken (p280).

During his second trip to Africa and the Middle East, he toured Algiers ‘by taxi, leaning out of the car window to take photographs’, apparently catching the attention of the police who detained him on departure at the airport, believing the photos to be a security risk (p319).

An evening program at the Audubon Ballroom organized by the Organization for Afro-American Unity in January 1965 ‘featured color films taken by Malcolm during his travels’ (p404).

This suggests his interest in photography extended to cinematography too, and indeed, several images of Malcolm show him holding an 8mm movie camera, like this one published in Life magazine, taken at London Airport in July 1964.

Here’s another picture of Malcolm holding a camera. And there is actually a similar shot (possibly taken on the same occasion) on the home page of the Malcolm X Project, a collection of resources compiled in association with Marable’s biography.

But most intriguing of all is the claim that de Laurot’s remarkable film Black Liberation (1967) features Malcolm X not only on screen but ‘behind the camera’. You can – if you’re lucky to get a good connection – stream a video here, but it is impossible to guess which bits of footage he may have been responsible for.

Surely there is enough here to merit further investigation. Malcolm was not the first political leader to try to control his photographic image. But a leader who wields a camera in public is certainly unusual and cannot be attributed solely to a concern over how he was represented. After all, most of the film he shot would have been of people and places he encountered, not of himself.

Perhaps it is time to return to the vast on- and off-line Malcolm X archive and ask it questions about photography that it may not have been asked before. How skilled a photographer was he? Do his photographs and movie footage evince a particular sensibility, even the hints of a radical aesthetic practice, or are they indistinguishable from conventional holiday snaps? At any rate, the special interest in photography on the part of someone who was almost exclusively identified with a – very distinctive – verbal (largely oral) delivery might cause us to wonder about the co-existence of these very different rhetorical forms in his repertoire.

There are five boxes of photographs in the Malcolm X Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The collection description record is fairly general, but does indicate that it includes ‘portraits of African-American expatriates and visitors, and views of crowds, possibly photographed by Malcolm X during his visits to various African countries, particularly Nigeria and Ghana (ca. 1964).’

Looks like a good place to start.

Jackie and Bob

It seems incredible that I could have lived more than fifty years and not have heard ‘Oboe’ by Jackie Mittoo.

But, as I was compelled to stop doing the dishes and turn up the volume when this beguiling instrumental came on the radio this evening, it would appear to be indeed the case.

Something about it sounded familiar, though. That five-note motif (first heard at 0’25”) nagged me.  Where had I heard this before? Who had sampled it?

I scrubbed at a pan and put the kettle on. My son could tell from my manner that I was preoccupied.  He asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain. I told him it was nearly bedtime and went through to run his bath, scared that the song would end and I’d miss the announcement that would tell me what it was and the riff would simply evaporate.  For you can’t (yet) sing to Shazam.

And then it came to me. Wasn’t it used in ‘A Touch of Jazz’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince?

Actually, no. While he was splashing and singing the Octonauts theme at full belt in the bathroom, I played the 12″ and realized what I was thinking of was the better known ‘Westchester Lady’ by Bob James:

The motif (first heard at 0’09”) is similar but – played straight after the Jackie Mittoo – is much more distinct. And, of course, more samplable. You can see why it caught the attention of Jazzy Jeff (and several others).

Bob’s tune came out in 1973, Jackie’s three years later. I assume the quotation is deliberate. Roaming online just now I came across one comment that suggested that ‘Oboe’ is a cover of ‘Westchester Lady’, which is pushing it, and only true in the sense that John Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’ is a cover of that song from The Sound of Music.

Let’s face it, Bob James is pretty cheesy. This song, with its cringeworthy title, is a lifetime’s supply of Dairylea. That five-note series is the only thing going for it, unless jazz funk arrangements polished to a dazzling shine thrill you per se.

But embedded in the loose ensemble sound you hear on ‘Oboe’, Jackie Mittoo shows that riff has legs. Its meandering, improvisatory quality, together with those never-quite expected splashes and swells of keyboard and cuts in the rhythm, make it far too interesting to listen to in a lift or hotel lobby.

Its nine and a half minutes deserve your full attention.

The Fire Last Time

Dany Laferrière has suggested – with a hint of provocation, no doubt – that the greatest novel of the Duvalier dicatatorship was written by an Englishman: Graham Greene’s The Comedians.1 In the same spirit, perhaps, we might add that the best film of the Haitian Revolution was made by an Italian: Queimada (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo.

Pontecorvo, best known for The Battle of Algiers (1966), named Queimada after the fictional Portuguese colony in the Caribbean he chose for its setting. Filmed in Colombia, it is a defiantly unglamorous period drama that tells of the struggle against slavery and colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century.

William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives on the island and helps to rekindle a slave rebellion, which he then recommends the white mulatto elite support in order to win independence from the Portuguese. Walker is an British agent whose objective is to get the Portuguese out of the way so that the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can profit from its plantations. Once independence is won (and slavery abolished), Walker persuades his protege, the black leader Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez) to convince his men to return to the cane fields. The reluctant mulatto figurehead Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) becomes president and Walker leaves.

Ten years pass. The sugar company effectively rules Queimada instead of the Portuguese, but precariously. For the last six years, Delores has been leading a guerrilla campaign and has proved unwilling to negotiate. At the government’s request, Walker returns. He advises the army to ruthlessly destroy key villages, but the campaign continues. The army stage a coup against Sanchez (who is prepared to capitulate) and General Alfonso Prada calls in the British Army. With their superior fire-power, the scale of devastation multiplies, and the sugar company is concerned that its plantations are being destroyed in the process. With Dolores still at large, it wonders whether the price is worth paying. But Walker reminds the company’s representative Mr Shelton (Norman Hill) that even if Queimada is burnt to the ground, it would be worth it, because it would at least stop the revolution spreading to other islands where the company also has sugar interests.

Finally, Dolores is captured, but he maintains an enigmatic silence, and refuses to talk to Walker. The government discusses the preferred form of execution. Walker reminds them that Dolores would be much more dangerous dead than alive. They try to offer him freedom if he leaves the Caribbean but Dolores laughs. He knows the value of martyrdom. And, as he explains to a black soldier guarding him: ‘If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take. Do you understand?’ On the day of his execution, Walker offers to allow him to escape, asking for nothing in return, but Dolores again refuses. He is led to the gallows.

Walker leaves before the execution takes place. On the quayside he is approached by a young man offering to carry his bags (as Dolores did in the two scenes that bookend the first half of the film depicting Walker’s arrival and departure). Momentarily caught unawares, Walker turns round and the stranger stabs him fatally in the chest.

Two versions of Queimada were released. The original version (132 minutes) is dubbed in Italian. To hear Brando’s own voice (and his plum accent), you will have to make do the English-language version that is 20 minutes shorter. Lawrence Russellclaims that it was Brando’s favourite film, despite the tribulations of the shoot itself, in which the star and the director disagreed over just about everything. It is certainly possible that he was attracted to a script that ‘fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement’. Or admired it as a ‘furious Vietnam allegory’, as Stephen Hunter has described it.

But its allegorical possibilities do not stop there. The Somali teenager Sagal in Nuruddin Farah’s novel Sardines (1981) has production stills of Brando from Queimada on her bedroom wall, along with posters of Che, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but she cannot explain to her mother the story of the film or which revolt was being depicted. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as its parallels are legion. One reason, no doubt, that, as her mother goes on to inform her, it was only shown once in Mogadishu and then only in a highly censored version.2

And indeed, the parallels may continue to proliferate. For instance, during the second half of the film, it is not hard to think of the current war in Afghanistan and the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden. The title is even a close anagram of Al-Qaida.

But the historical events they most closely resemble are those of the Caribbean itself, notably the struggles that led to the abolition of slavery in the French islands in the 1790s and the brutal attempt to restore it – successfully in the case of Guadeloupe, but not Saint-Domingue, which became the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.

What is striking is the way Pontecorvo captures the complex, shifting political allegiances of metropolitan governments, private companies, white settlers, prosperous free people of colour, and the black slaves. We might have got a sense of this in the film Sergei Eisenstein planned in 1934 to make about Toussaint Louverture, starring Paul Robeson.3 And may still yet in Danny Glover’s rumoured-to-be-forthcoming biopic, based – it is alleged – on a screenplay by Med Hondo.

But it is a book – C L R James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian revolution – that Queimada most resembles. In particular, the emphasis on the importance of the decisions that Toussaint made to accept or reject offers of help from those whose commitment to black freedom were suspect. The British and the Spanish for instance. Or even the representatives of the French Revolution, which had promised to abolish slavery, like commissioner Sonthonax. In each case, James spells out the political and military calculations Toussaint had to make when choosing his allies.

In Queimada, these dilemmas are dramatised clearly in a series of three scenes early in the film which show Walker and Dolores preparing to join forces.

The story of Queimada is told from Walker’s point of view, an outsider – like the audience – unfamiliar with the island which he first sees through an eye-glass from the deck of his approaching ship. And yet Walker is ultimately out-manouevred by Dolores. They both die at the end but it is clear that it is Dolores who will be remembered, not Walker.

In this clip, the two characters are at first glance, presented as equals who can help each other, who share a common goal. But in fact the formal equality suggested by the presentation (the scrupulous attention to both partners in the dialogue, filmed chiastically in shot reverse shot), in the end draws attention to their differences.

In the church, Walker proposes they join forces to rob the bank and split the proceeds. But of the 100 million gold reales, fifty go to Walker while the the other half is shared between Dolores and his men.

On the hillside where he outlines his plan, it becomes clear that they won’t be escaping together. While Walker intends to flee to England, Dolores and his men dream of Africa.

Once the preparations are complete, Dolores and Walker drink to the success of their mission. They drink each other’s habitual tipple (Walker tries rum and Dolores whisky) and toast (separately) ‘England’ and ‘Africa’ before finding something they can both pronounce: ‘the world’. But it is the thinnest cosmopolitan veneer. Pulling faces, neither manages to down his cup, and, relieved, they switch back. Each to their own. May the best man win.

Notes

  1. Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2010), p127.
  2. Nuruddin Farah, Sardines (London: Heinemann, 1982), p29.
  3. Scott Allen Nollen, Paul Robeson: Film Pioneer (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2010), pp52-3.

An Outline of a Critique of Political Economy

I am old enough to remember decimalisation, which finally took place in Britain forty years ago this week. As an eleven-year-old in his first year at secondary school, who had never been abroad, it was my first taste of that slightly queasy feeling you get when you have to think in two different currencies at once. I recall the frisson as p’s and d’s mingled promiscuously in my pocket, the conversion tables on the walls of post offices and newsagents, the impending obsolescence of the eleven and twelve times tables.

But above all I am reminded of an event some ten years later: now a student at Birmingham University whose routes across the city often took in one of the alternative bookshops that nurtured the subculture. These institutions, defined negatively in that they offered what mainstream bookshops did not – a good coverage of left-wing politics, imported fiction and poetry, alternative health and non-western religion – nevertheless came to feel as if they obeyed a single organic principle.

They flourished in university towns, but not exclusively. As a teenager, I regularly visited a tiny one in Blackburn, Lancashire on my way home from school, spending money from a paper round on treats like How to Grow Your Own Marijuana, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and the latest issues of Peace News.

Nowadays, that rapprochement is almost over, the trade fragmented between Buddhist Centres, herbalist emporia, welfare rights offices, with gentrified boutiques like the London Review Bookshop virtually the only places left for readers who think of themselves of independent mind. Where now can you walk in off the street and pick up a copy of Amilcar Cabral, Alexandra Kollontai or Ernest Mandel?

The nearest to my first flat in Birmingham was in Moseley, its volumes of Gramsci and Jung always faintly perfumed with jasmine and patchouli, although, with its squeaky wooden floors and gloomy mezzanine to the rear, retaining a studious air missing from its more activist-oriented twin situated on the curve of St Martins Circus Queensway in the city centre, filled with natural light that nurtured house plants and made hand-written cards curl around drawing pins on the noticeboard.

A mile away was the Communist Party bookshop, tucked away a block or two back from the busy A38, which pretty much stuck to printed material and felt a little more intimidating and austere in comparison, although it was already livened up with the snazzy covers of Martin Jacques’ Marxism Today and Robert Natkin’s colourful abstract paintings that adorned the cover of the first generation of Verso’s translations of French, German and Italian socialist intellectuals (most of whom are hardly spoken of today).

Not that these developments left much mark on Progressive Books and Asian Arts in Selly Oak. There were fans, incense, some fabrics and posters, but I was drawn to the shelves lined with the cream paperbacks of Peking’s Foreign Languages Press editions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and of course Mao himself, alongside the darker hues of the rather more durable hardbacks that offered their Selected or Collected Works. A ramble on the web just now tells me that the bookshop was run in the 1970s by Jagmothan Joshi, General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association, a fact of which I was completely unaware at the time. When I used to visit, the proprietor was a taciturn and somewhat intense man in his late twenties or early thirties, perhaps an eternal postgraduate, whose longish hair, cardigan and brown suede shoes made me think of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Not long after I discovered it, the shop was holding a closing-down sale, offering two-thirds off all stock. I chose The Poverty of Philosophy (60p, still pencilled on the now rather faded cover), Selected Letters of Marx and Engels (also 60p), Anti-Dühring (which seems to have disappeared from my collection) and a volume of Mao’s Selected Writings that included the Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan and On Contradiction (£2). Even at marked prices they represented excellent value for money at a time when – as a glance at the back covers of other books I bought around the same time reveals – a copy of Discipline and Punish would have set me back £2.95 and Althusser’s For Marx a stomach-clenching £4.25.

And for each one, Stockhausen diligently calculated the promised discount. And what I liked about this ritual was, when he took up the Penguin edition of Engels’ Selected Works and noticed that the price printed on the back cover – for it must have been on the shelf for more than a decade – was an uncorrected 7 shillings and sixpence, without missing a beat he rapidly executed the mental arithmetic and informed me, with a hint of a smile, that I owed him 12½p.

I don’t know if this sale made the slightest difference to his fortunes as he made his way in the world following the shop’s demise. But in honouring the agreement to reduce his prices to the point at which they became almost meaningless I think he made a tiny difference to mine.

The Guinea’s Stamp

When Robert Burns published his first book of poems, he intended it as a parting shot before leaving Scotland for good. A position had been arranged for him on a plantation in the West Indies, and he was due to set sail from Greenock in September, 1786. ”Twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow,’ he wrote in a letter of August 1787, ‘even though it should never reach my ears a poor Negro-driver.’

But he never did cross the Atlantic. Instead he set out for what he called the ‘new world’ of literary Edinburgh to follow up his recent success there and exploit the tempting prospect of a second edition. Today Burns is more likely to be remembered as the friend of liberty, man of the people, and composer of the sentimental abolitionist song ‘The Slave’s Lament’: ‘It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral / For the lands of Virginia-ginia O.’

In 1846, fifty years after his death, he was paid homage by someone who had travelled in the opposite direction to escape the long arm of American slavery. In a letter from Ayr printed in the New York Tribune, the fugitive wrote animatedly of the romantic setting of his Monument. He took delight in being able to see with his own eyes the places named in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and ‘Ye Banks and Braes.’ And he was honoured to meet Burns’ 80-year-old sister, ‘a spirited looking woman who bids fair to live yet many days.’1

The author was Frederick Douglass, already well-known in the United States following the appearance of his autobiography the previous year. Its graphic descriptions of life on a Maryland plantation, and of the cruelties he witnessed as a child and later endured himself, made the book an instant classic. It told how, against all odds, he taught himself to read and write, and – barely out of his teens – engineered his escape, equipped with forged papers, to the free North. In New England he hooked up with radical anti-slavery campaigners and became one their leading spokesmen.

But in publishing his story, he increased the chance of being identified and recaptured. So in 1845 the fiery abolitionist sailed for Britain, where he stayed nearly two years. Douglass captivated audiences at hundreds of speaking engagements across the country. He made several extended tours of Scotland, where the anti-slavery societies were especially active. His slogans were carved on the turf of Arthur’s Seat and his visit celebrated in popular ballads of the time.

In his letter from Ayr, the former slave made common cause with the former ploughman who saw through the empty rhetoric of the ‘bigoted and besotted clergy’ and the ‘shallow-brained aristocracy’, and ‘broke loose’, as he put it, ‘from the moorings society had thrown around him.’ But he acknowledged his faults too. ‘Like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths’, he observed – perhaps alluding to some of his own.

Both men rose from lowly origins to become figures of major historical importance. Douglass himself went on to hold government posts during the Civil War and afterwards, including that of Minister to Haiti. His books are nowadays required reading in schools in the United States. And he has become a cultural and political bone of contention, claimed by black nationalists on the one hand and those who think of him as more a typical American on the other – in much the same way that Burns can appear in turn the quintessential Scot and the hybrid cosmopolitan.

Douglass was not the only African American writer to have found much to admire in Burns. In James Weldon Johnson’s introduction to the Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), his work was held up as an example of how sophisticated a vernacular literature could be, comparable to that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

The similarity between many phases of their lives is remarkable, and their works are not incommensurable. Burns took the strong dialect of his people and made it classic; Dunbar took the humble speech of his people and in it wrought music.

The Caribbean-born poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was dubbed the ‘Jamaican Burns’ for his early dialect verse, though it is possible that Louise Bennett might be more deserving of the title (so long as we also allow that Burns might be the ‘Scottish Bennett’). More recently, Maya Angelou celebrated the Burns bicentenary in 1996 with a visit to his homeland, the subject of a fascinating documentary made for television.

Douglass’ interest in Scotland did not stop at Burns, though. His surname – adopted after his arrival in Massachusetts – he took from the hero of The Lady of the Lake. A rather cheeky gesture, perhaps, given the popularity of Walter Scott among the Southern planters he left behind. In view of the continued appropriation of Scottish emblems on the part of white supremacists in the United States – from the pseudo-celtic rituals of the Ku Klux Klan to the tartan wallpaper that adorns Confederate websites – his choice invites us to imagine a different Scotland, one less amenable to fantasies of racial purity and ethnic exclusion.

Another Scot who inspired Douglass was Lord Byron, particularly the lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?

As far as I can tell, he quoted them first in an article entitled, appropriately enough, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, published in the North Star, the newspaper he founded on his return to the United States in 1847. No doubt a certain impatience with white abolitionists contributes to its subsequent reappearance in his fictionalization of the 1841 mutiny aboard the slave ship Creole in The Heroic Slave (1852) and at the end of the chapter that records his triumph over the notorious slave-breaker Covey in his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).2

But if Byron provided the slogan for an emergent black radicalism breaking free of white patronage, it was the words of ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ by that other Scots poet which were called on time and time again to underscore Douglass’ robust egalitarianism.3 Most poignantly perhaps in an address at a Burns Supper in Rochester, New York in 1849.

He began by admitting that ‘I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, but if a warm love of Scotch character – a high appreciation of Scotch genius – constitute any of the qualities of a true Scotch heart, then indeed does a Scotch heart throb beneath these ribs.’ He described to his listeners his recent travels in the country – where ‘every stream, hill, glen, and valley had been rendered classic by heroic deeds on behalf of freedom’ – and his memorable visit to the poet’s birth-place.

‘And if any think me out of my place on this occasion,’ he concluded, pointing to the portrait of Burns on the wall, ‘I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that “a man’s a man for a’ that.”‘4

Notes

  1. Frederick Douglass, ‘A Fugitive Slave Visiting the Birth-place of Robert Burns’, extract from a letter dated 23 April 1846, New York Tribune, 9 July 1846, reprinted in Alasdair Pettinger (ed), Always Elsewhere: Travels of the Black Atlantic (London: Cassell, 1998), pp95-7.
  2. Frederick Douglass, ‘What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves’, North Star, 14 July 1848, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), p315; The Heroic Slave [1852] in William Andrews (ed), The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p157; My Bondage and My Freedom [1855] (New York: Dover, 1969, p249. The lines also appeared in Henry Highland Garnet, An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America [1843] (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p93; they were used as masthead of Martin Delany’s paper The Mystery, launched New York, 1843) (see Robert S Levine (ed), Martin R Delany: A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), p27); cited in James McCune Smith, ‘Outside Barbarians’, Frederick Douglass’ Paper (25 Dec 1851), reprinted in John Stauffer (ed), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p80; and featured as the epigraph to Chapter III of W E B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903] in Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986), p392.
  3. Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, London, 23 May 1846, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp170-1; ‘The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Delivered in Hudson, Ohio on 12 July 1854’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), p523; ‘Our Recent Western Tour’, Douglass’ Monthly, April 1859, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade, 1850-1860 (New York: International Publishers, 1950) p451.
  4. Frederick Douglass, ‘On Robert Burns and Scotland: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York on 25 January 1849’, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp147-48.

(Revised and expanded version of an article first published in the Sunday Herald, 23 January, 2000).

Our Future

Yesterday, the Observer, followed a long – but not, I think, distinguished – New Year tradition of asking a panel of experts to predict the future. Specifically, their brief was to identify the key developments they expected to take place in the next twenty five years in various fields, ‘from the web to wildlife, the economy to nanotechnology, politics to sport.’

What is troubling about this – and similar – projections is not their proverbial inaccuracy. An AIDS vaccine, driverless cars, the answer to the dark matter question. Who knows if and when they will arrive? The problem is their use of the first person plural.

  • ‘We will be sharing videos, simulations, experiences and environments, on a multiplicity of devices to which we’ll pay as much attention as a light switch.’
  • ‘I think we’ll be cycling and walking more.’
  • ‘We’ll learn more about intervening in our biology at the sub-cellular level and this nano-medicine will give us new hope of overcoming really difficult and intractable diseases.’

What is it about the future tense that makes ‘we’ so attractive? Switch it to the present or the past and the universality it seems to imply would look distinctly forced. Is it not possible that some people might benefit or suffer from these changes more than others? Will the shining rays of the world to come strike us all at the same angle?

Why is it that these predictions always seem to invoke an undifferentiated ‘we’ when the disappearance of social division and inequality is not one of them?